Mention squirrel hunting and most folks think about slipping down a sand ditch or creeping along an old logging road to sneak up on a hickory where the bushy tails have been cutting acorns.
That’s the norm when the season opens in late August. Finding a ridge where the greys have been gnawing on green scaly barks and then trying to figure out where the elusive critter are hiding in the tall trees full of thick leaves.
Fast forward to late season when cold mornings and leafless forests offer another phase of Tennessee’s long squirrel season. No ticks or mosquitoes. No snakes out, either.
When leaves lie silent on the forest floor and acorns have long since fallen, another opportunity opens up for hunters who love sharing the day with their dogs. The canine companions do indeed add another dimension to the sport.
For years I’ve yearned to share the woods with someone who squirrel hunts with dogs. Donald Barnes of Henry County helped me fulfill that desire on a cold February morning, just before the season ended.
A veteran of squirrel hunting with dogs, Donald made his way to West Tennessee from Arkansas in 1973 to teach at the local vocational school.
After a 30-year career here he’s still here, spending his retirement fishing and following his beloved squirrel dogs across ridges and into ravines.
A man and his dogs — on a mission in the great outdoors. No time cards to punch and no deadlines. Here, time doesn’t seem to matter.
We ventured to Land Between the Lakes, where thousands of acres of hardwood forest offered what seemed like endless opportunities.
Before Donald dropped the tailgate, yelps of enthusiasm echoed from the kennel. From the confinement emerged three feisty canines ready to get this show going. It was clear they came to hunt — it surely wasn’t their first rodeo.
“Been hunting for ages and I love the sport plus the exercise,” said Donald as I asked about his hunting history. “Since I retired 15 years ago, the dogs sort of keep me going,” he says between encouraging the pups on a brisk day.
For several years, Barnes and his canine companions have not only hunted the woods of Tennessee, but also shared their passion to enter competition hunts known as “field trials” among dog owners.
Leading the trio this morning was a 10-year-old male named Doc, whose credentials include the Super Grand Champion title, which is the highest a dog can go in the National Kennel Club competitive dog world.
All Barnes’ dogs are of the breed known as Barger Feist, which was started by an East Tennessee breeder by the name of Bill Barger. Through the years, the breed has excelled in ranks of both competition and sport hunters.
Barnes actually owns seven dogs and is cultivating younger dogs for the future.
Sharing the outing were 2-year-old pups Robin, a young female out of Doc, and another pup, Hank, who was a Bench Show champion himself. These energetic rascals wasted no time hitting the woods.
“By about one year old, the dogs begin to catch on good, learning obedience and accompanying the older seasoned dogs,” Donald said.
“Each dog has a different degree of tolerance, and you have to learn to read them as they mature, just like a kid.”
Each dog has a Garmin model 100 tracking collar, which also doubles as a training device. A small monitor around Donald’s neck allows him to know the whereabouts. With a range of a mile or more, the owner can keep up with his dogs, should they perhaps tree a squirrel out of hearing range.
A trained dog is worth big bucks — pups can bring $400-plus and lots more for adults with high pedigrees and credentials. Plus, the sentimental attraction is often priceless. Thus, keeping up with the dogs in the wild is important.
‘HE’S UP THERE SOMEWHERE’
In the midst of our conversation on dog lore comes the high-pitched yelp from 200 yards ahead. Hank or Robin has hit on something.
The scene gets more interesting when Doc sounds off and the three now sing a song of “he’s up there somewhere.”
As we approach the tree, the dogs have teamed up and bark, all the time looking to the treetops and scanning for any glimpse of movement.
All the dogs are darting around with excitement, biting on saplings here and jerking on vines there. They put on quite a show and sniff and snort at a long hollow tree trunk where a bushy tail has no doubt been. We back away and scan high in the trees, hoping for a glimpse.
Around Donald’s shoulder is a sling holding a Ruger 22-caliber rifle with a Nikon scope.
We stay for several minutes, hoping the squirrel will show himself, but Donald says it’s not unusual for late-season squirrels to find a hole quickly and hide.
That appears to be the case, as we depart and head on. The dogs know he’s hiding somewhere and reluctantly leave, as Donald calls them off to hunt elsewhere.
Watching the intensity of these polished dogs is quite a spectacle. They love it and it shows with all their movements. All three were staring at the treetops and barking at times, no doubt hoping for a little hand-to-hand combat once a squirrel is shot out.
Our backwoods journey continues as Donald schools me on the details of competition hunts and scoring from judges. I can see how it gets into one’s blood. The owner’s dog is part of him. When in a contest, you want your kids to do well, and your dogs are just like kids.
I learned on our hunt how squirrel dogs not only need to watch for movement in the woods, but use scent. Dogs use the wind and can literally smell the scent of a squirrel that’s up in the tree.
We venture to several oaks where the dogs have treed something, only to have the elusive busy tail vanish from sight. A glimpse shows holes all over the den tree where the little rascal has found refuge.
The dogs don’t want to leave empty handed, as they live up to their breeding reputation.
Donald took me deep into the woods, educating me on the fundamentals of dogging for squirrels. I’m hooked. It’s another dimension to a sport that’s been around for eons, yet it’s one I’ve just discovered.
In the weeks ahead, Donald Barnes will be headed to places like Illinois and Missouri to participate in more field trials.
Following your dogs down rural paths will always lead you to a high degree of enjoyment. The squirrels, dogs and tall timber provide the playing field for this sport that will lure folks of all ages.
It was my first squirrel hunt with dogs. It won’t be my last.
STEVE McCADAMS is The Post-Intelligencer’s outdoors writer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.